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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Listening Intently: Towards a Critical Media Theory of Ethical Listening
by Feldman, Jessica, Ph.D., New York University, 2017, 333; 10623952
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation considers how advances in the surveillance of cell phone data, decentralized mobile networks, and vocal affective monitoring software are changing the ways in which listening exerts power and frames social and political possibilities. The low- and middle-level design limitations and broad implementations of these communication media frame cultural circumstances in terms of what kinds of emotional expressions and social relations are both perceptible and acceptable.

The first chapter looks at recent and contemporary software that seeks to identify emotions in the acoustic voice by ignoring words and instead measuring quantifiable parameters of sound. The design of these algorithms shows a change in their conception of the human emotional system as they evolve from truth-telling to predictive machines. The chapter views this techno-psychological shift as the enactment of an emerging mode of surveillance, which serves the risk economy by claiming to predict subjects’ behavior by coding and categorizing their emotional motivations. The second chapter traces the development and global dissemination of cell phone surveillance programs. Here, the research draws on declassified white papers, interviews, and legal scholarship to make a “fear-based standing” argument against ex-ante mass surveillance, showing how the capture and storage of real-time communications can cause low-level psychological trauma, and how the chilling effect obstructs political progress and experimentation. The third chapter considers non-hierarchical models for listening, consensus, and community governance, as practiced in the “movements of the squares”, together with a handful of emerging, but marginally adopted, circumvention apps and peer-to-peer networking tools that these movements developed in order to overcome blocking and surveillance. It concludes that these social movements experimented with autonomous zones of horizontal connectivity, but failed to sustain themselves in part because of a lack of resilient communications infrastructures to mirror and facilitate their politics.

The fourth chapter is a whitepaper outlining the requirements elicitation for the amidst project, an ad-hoc peer-to-peer decentralized network for mobile devices, which is a collaboration between the author and three engineers. This project proposes a remedy to the critiques of surveillance, blocking, and infrastructural weakness elucidated throughout previous chapters.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Scherzinger, Martin, Mills, Mara
Commitee: Benson, Rodney, Nissenbaum, Helen
School: New York University
Department: Media, Culture, and Communication
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 79/02(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Ethics, Communication, Political science
Keywords: Networks, New media, Privacy, Social movements, Sound studies, Surveillance
Publication Number: 10623952
ISBN: 978-0-355-34917-7
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